Saturday, February 23, 2013
Frontier, Brunswick, Maine
I had never seen Samuel James before and it’s a shame I waited so long. The stars aligned, though, and I was excited to learn he’d be coming to Frontier in Brunswick just a day after I arrived home from a week in Panama during my February vacation. I love not having to drive all the way to Portland for a show, so I asked my friend Shaun to come and Gardiner friends Andrea and Ryan and I carpooled down in a bit of a storm. Ryan (basically) called me a cat lady in the car (I have two beloved cats—Boris and Yeltsin), but I brought him to the show anyhow. He’s lucky I did, too.
After a delightful dinner at Frontier (the food really is so good, and Andrea appreciates the vegan options), we grabbed seats in the front row of Frontier’s intimate theatre for the 8pm show. It was sold out despite the weather, and I knew that was a good indication that other people already knew what I’d assumed—you should not miss Samuel James live.
I felt like I was in his living room the whole night. SJ is a charming and honest storyteller. I was blown away by his creative and powerful guitar playing and strong, raspy voice. I liked how he could play a serious song—“Baby Doll”—about a woman who tried to kill him, but still make jokes about it afterwards. One of my favorite SJ jokes was a song intro. He said, “This is a song that’s a true story. It’s an instrumental. Let that sink in.” I laughed all night. I also enjoyed his story about a tour in France where he knew he’d get sick even though he never does because everyone there coughed with their mouths open. Sure enough, he got sicker and sicker over the course of the tour. By the time he made it to England, he was on stage criticizing the newest James Bond film. At least he didn’t miss a show on tour, I guess? He’s off to tour Russia in April.
SJ kept a dialogue with the audience going all evening. He asked us after every song if there were questions and there were! I enjoyed the informality and the kind exchange of curiosity back and forth with the audience. He joked all night about stopping his set to play 2 Live Crew covers, but there were kids in the audience and he ultimately thought it wouldn’t be the right way to go. I also learned that his recurring nightmare is that one of his guitar strings will snap when he’s tuning and it will stab him in the eye. I don’t usually learn this much about a performer in a night, and I loved it.
I was floored when SJ told us that he’d only been playing guitar for about ten years. I have been playing for almost fifteen and now I feel like a total guitar loser. He’d worked the counter at a gym in Portland all those years ago and was a portrait artist. A patron of the gym offered him a show at her gallery and he used the money he’d saved up to pay to frame his work for the show. A bad breakup in the interim sent him for three months to escape to Ireland where he befriended a street guitar performer. He picked up the guitar then and never went back. If that guy could see him now, he’d be so impressed. Listening to Samuel James play guitar is a transcendent experience. He is a serious talent.
I liked his alternating country and bluesy, zydeco infused songs on classical guitar and dobro and his covers of “Folsom Prison” (in honor of Johnny Cash’s birthday), Kris Kristofferson, Townes Van Zandt, and John Lee Hooker. He surely has songwriting chops, though. I especially liked the song (“Nineteen”) he wrote for his dad that showed off his guitar percussion skills. Samuel James can make a lot of noise for just one guy.
After an intermission, SJ led us in a round of “Twinkle, Twinkle,” a song requested by a toddler in the audience. It was adorable. To say that Samuel James is a good guy might be an understatement. In the world of music, his approachability and humility is a breath of fresh air. His cover of John Lee Hooker’s “Hobo Blues” was breathtaking. He tried to leave the stage after it, but we pushed for another song and he obliged with another amazing piece featuring a fierce harmonica part. He thanked us warmly for coming and told us he’d “never played a show in this town that didn’t go great.” His show was the perfect antidote for a cold, snowy night.
I wanted to say hello after the show because Samuel James and I have a mutual friend—Portland-based singer songwriter Max Garcia Conover. When I introduced myself, SJ knew who I was because I’d posted on his Facebook wall that I was excited for the show. We chatted about his upcoming tour in Russia and artist residency at Breakwater School, and how much we both love and admire our dear friend Max. He was such a nice guy—totally unaffected by his talent.
Ryan (who is far more knowledgeable about guitarists than I am) said SJ reminded him of Blind Willie McTell on Piedmont guitar and also Mississippi Fred McDowell. I am a primarily folk/indie girl, so I resorted to Google to figure out who they are. Now that I know those guys are both guitar legends, I realize Ryan was giving Samuel James quite a compliment. It’s well deserved.
Thanks, Samuel James. You rock.